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FOOTBALL PLAYOFF PREVIEW

IN THE GRASP : Orange Lutheran Gets Its Best Shot at a Championship

November 17, 1998|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange Lutheran is due.

Due to win its first Southern Section football championship.

In the last four years, the Lancers have appeared in two Division X title games and reached the Division X semifinals the other two times.

This season, the Lancers and the Olympic League moved to Division XI. Orange Lutheran has been the division's top-ranked team the last six weeks and begins the playoffs Thursday against Santa Paula as the division's top-seeded team.

Coach Jim Kunau is known for being intense and focused during the football season. "I did hear that Newt Gingrich resigned the other day," he said, dryly. But despite his reputation, Kunau says he is not obsessed with winning a section title.

"Sure, we'd like to win it," Kunau said. "But our goal is beyond that.

"We have on our agenda: faith, character, work ethic and academics. Not only monitoring kids in school but also taking a personal interest in their college admission process, finding the best college for them. We spend more time on those things than the technical side of football."

No matter, this is probably the best overall team Orange Lutheran has brought into the playoffs.

Since Kunau became head coach in 1993, the Lancers have been an offensive machine. This season has been no exception. In their nine games (the season finale with Sierra Madre Maranatha was canceled because Maranatha could not field a team), Orange Lutheran scored 380 points. That's more than Los Alamitos (371), Esperanza (365), Santiago (358), Mater Dei (285) and Woodbridge (223) scored in each of their first nine games.

Orange Lutheran was routed in its season opener by North Florida Christian, 42-16. The Lancers have won eight in a row since, and most of the games haven't been close--42-20 over Los Amigos, 42-14 over Laguna Beach, 33-13 over Cerritos Valley Christian, 56-14 over Whittier Christian. Troy, which fell, 28-19, is the only Orange Lutheran victim that did not lose by 20 or more.

Players having big seasons for Orange Lutheran include quarterback Jason Whieldon (63% completion rate for 1,917 yards and 21 touchdowns), running back Dee Meza (1,260 yards and 25 touchdowns in 103 carries), and receivers Jeff Renevier and Tim Fleming, who have combined for 76 receptions, 1,589 yards and 18 touchdowns.

"They are a bona fide, big-time football team," Los Amigos Coach Roger Takahashi said. "They were as good as anybody we faced. They dominated us."

The Lancers' defense, which Kunau describes as "scrappy, not dominating," has also been impressive.

The first-stringers gave up only three touchdowns in five league games. Even in the loss to North Florida Christian, only three touchdowns were scored against the defense; the others were scored on turnovers, including a mishandled punt.

"I think they would be considered a good team in our division [Division IX]," Troy Coach John Turek said.

"You can look at the scores they've had and tell they have far more athletes on the field than most of the teams in their division," Turek said. "And this year, I felt they were a more physical team than in the past."

Cerritos Valley Christian Coach Mike Wunderley, whose teams have dominated Orange Lutheran 17-4 overall but lost two of the last three meetings, also said the Lancers' defense was the best he has seen recently.

"Jim always seemed to create the big-play offense because you don't see Lutheran grind out long drives very often," Wunderley said. "In the past, you could sustain drives against their defense. This year, at least against us, they seemed to do what they wanted."

Pat Salyer, a defensive end for Orange Lutheran, said the team rededicated itself after the loss to Florida Christian.

"That game was probably the best thing to happen to us," Salyer said. "It opened our eyes. We decided after that we had to step it up and prepare for games a lot harder. We might not be where we are now as a team if that hadn't happened."

That was the attitude adjustment Lancer defensive coordinator Dean Vieselmeyer was seeking.

"We have a lot of great kids, nice kids," Vieselmeyer said. "They had to get a little meaner. But it has been a very hard-working group of kids. We have some better athletes playing defense this year, like Dee, Pat and Fleming. We're also bigger than in year's past. We really haven't changed much of what we do--lots of tackling drills and techniques, going over the fundamentals every day."

Orange Lutheran's rise coincides with Kunau's promotion from special teams coach to head coach in 1993. After a 5-5 season his first year, the Lancers have taken off.

Since 1994, Orange Lutheran has gone 39-9-1 in the regular season, 21-4 in league, and 10-4 in the playoffs. They've won or shared three league titles. Thirteen players have been named to All-Southern Section teams. Two of them--Joe Juliano in 1994 and Travis Freeman in '96--were named the Division X players of the year.

They've done everything but win their last game.

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